About the Author
A mountain girl at heart, she lives in the Denver area with her husband, children, a pesky dog, and a slew of chickens.
Put it all together, and you find an adventurous writer who likes to explore what it means to be human and follow people on the journey to happily ever after.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The soft breeze floating off the Mosquito Range made the air feel more like midsummer than early June in Leadville. Which meant Annabelle Lassiter could almost declare mud season officially over. Though today's walk to the post office hadn't resulted in a letter from her aunt Celeste, surely she could escape this town and its painful reminders soon.
She paused as the parsonage came into view. A man waited on the porch. Annabelle sighed. Her father's mission to care for the miners in Leadville was wonderful, but these days, they had more hungry people showing up on their doorstep than she knew what to do with. They had food aplenty, but Annabelle's heart didn't have the strength to keep working when it seemed like every day held a new heartbreak.
Annabelle pasted a smile on her face as she walked up the steps of the parsonage to greet the man so covered in grime she couldn't make out his features. Probably a younger man, considering his hair was still dark.
This place had a way of aging a person so that appearances could be deceiving. Two white eyes blinked at her.
"Supper's not 'til seven." She'd learned not to be too friendly, too welcoming, lest her words be misconstrued. Besides, her face was too weighed down by her heart to find it in her to give this stranger a smile.
Those eyes continued staring at her. She'd seen dozens of men just like him. Miners willing to spend everything they owned to strike the big one, and when they ran out of options, they arrived on the Lassiters' doorstep.
As she got closer, she noticed a small child huddled next to him. So he was one of those. Bad enough to waste your life on a fool's errand, but to take a child with you
"Of course, if you'll come around back, I'm sure I can find something for your little girl." At least she hoped that's what the child was. Underneath all that filth, it was hard to tell. Whatever kindness Annabelle had left in her remained reserved for the children. Innocent victims of their parents' selfish dreams for riches that most who came to Leadville never found. Or when they did, they squandered their money in the many saloons in town. The Colorado mountains were tough on anybody, but especially on the little ones.
"I need to see the preacher." The man's voice came out raspy, like he'd spent too many days underground working the mines.
Annabelle tried not to sigh. Her father held more grubstakes and pieces of paper promising repayment when the mine finally paid out than she could count. If they had a penny for every paper they held, they'd be richer than these miners ever thought they could be. But, if she turned this one away, and her father got wind of it, he'd be upset.
"Come around back, then." Maddie would have her hide if she brought them through the front parlor. The last thing she needed was to be at the other end of Mad-die's tongue for more bootprints on the carpets.
The man stood, and the little girl buried her head further into his side. At this angle, Annabelle could see sloppy braids cascading down the girl's back. Poor child.
"It's all right, sweetheart." Annabelle knelt in front of her. "My name's Annabelle, and my father is the preacher. We'll help with whatever you need."
Round eyes with dark centers blinked at her. The little girl let loose of her hold on the man's filthy pants enough for them to walk down the steps and around the path to the backyard. Knowing her father, he was puttering in the garden, hoping to coax their spindly plants into doing something they were never designed to do at this elevation and these temperatures.
But he had faith that if Jesus could feed the masses with His loaves and His fish, then their tiny plants could keep their community fed. Annabelle shook her head. Too bad that faith hadn't yet panned out.
"Father?" Annabelle spied him plucking at a half-dead tomato plant.
His straw hat bobbed as he looked up at her. "Who've you got there?"
He didn't wait for an answer but stood and started toward them, brushing his hands on his pants.
"Joseph Stone, sir. I need a moment of your time." The man glanced at Annabelle like whatever he had to say wasn't meant for a female's delicate ears. There wasn't much Annabelle's delicate ears hadn't heard. Such was the life of a preacher's daughter in a mining town. Her family had come here to make the miners' lives better, and that meant dwelling in the deepest muck found in the human heart.
But just as working in the mines had a way of prematurely aging a man, helping the miners had a way of tearing at a person's heart. She wanted to love and care for people like this man and his little girl, but her heart felt like it had been wrung out so completely that there was nothing left to give. Surely if she left this place, her heart would finally have room to heal.
"I'll go put on some tea." She glanced at the man. "Or would you prefer coffee?"
He stared at her. "Nothing, thank you."
No, he probably just wanted Father's money. Some might say it was wrong of her to judge so quickly, but enough miners had come to their home that she no longer had to guess what they wanted.
Annabelle smiled at the girl, pulling on her heart's last reserves. "Want to come help me in the kitchen? I baked a whole mess of cookies earlier, and if you don't help me eat them, my father and I are going to have to do it ourselves. You don't want us to get bellyaches, do you?"
The little girl smiled, which would have been a pretty sight if those baby teeth of hers weren't almost all rotten. How could a man be so selfish in his pursuit of riches that he'd let this sweet thing have such a rough life? Not her business. As sweet as this little girl was, Annabelle couldn't let her heart get too involved.
"Can I?" She looked up at her father with such hopeful eyes.
"Annabelle will take good care of her. She has a way with youngsters," her father said quietly. He, too, had a heart for the children.
The man, Joseph, nodded. Annabelle held out her hand. "Come along now. We'll get you washed up at the pump, then go inside for some treats."
The little girl looked at Annabelle's hand, then took it. "Nugget."
"I beg your pardon?" Annabelle looked at her.
"My name is Nugget," the girl said softly.
Annabelle suppressed a sigh. Her father was one of those. So enraptured with the idea of getting rich, he even named his child after the evil silver.
"That's a nice name." It wasn't the girl's fault. From the way her face lit up at Annabelle's compliment, she'd probably gotten more than her share of teasing for such a ridiculous name.
Once she helped Nugget wash up, they went into the house.
The little girl looked around, then ran her hands along the lace tablecloth adorning their kitchen table. "This is pretty, like at Miss Betty's place."
What had they gotten themselves into? Miss Betty was one of the town's notorious madams. Her father had helped plenty of women escape that profession. Still, Annabelle had never been inside one of those places, and for a child to know was simply unfathomable.
How unfair that someone so young had seen the inside of a brothel. Worse, that if something wasn't done to help her, the little girl probably would end up working there someday. One of the harsh realities Annabelle faced daily.
Which was why Annabelle had to get out of Leadville. Though her father would tell her she should not grow weary of doing good, she was weary. Weary of helping people like this little girl and her father only to have it end badly. Perhaps they helped some people, but these days, all Annabelle could recall were the great losses.
Annabelle put a kettle on the stove for tea, then got out a plate of cookies. "Do you like snickerdoodles? They were my late mother's favorite recipe."
"You don't got no mama, neither?"
Annabelle closed her eyes, trying to push the memories away before looking at Nugget. "She died of a fever last winter."
Her father's faith hadn't done them much good then, either. Their prayers hadn't worked for her mother, or Susannah, or her brothers Peter, Mark and John, or anyone else for that matter. Half of their congregation had died from the same fever that had killed Catherine Las-siter. Even the two miners she'd worked so hard to nurse back to health. Though the fever hadn't taken them. No, they'd lived only to find death in a drunken brawl in one of the saloons.
No wonder her heart was so weary.
But bitterness wouldn't help this child, and she at least could offer the little girl kindness.
Annabelle gave Nugget a small squeeze. "I'm sorry for your loss."
"My mama had the pox."
Ears burning, Annabelle forced herself to focus on being compassionate rather than frustrated at a world that would let a little girl like Nugget know about the pox. Times like this, it was difficult to understand why her father chose this life. No matter how many people they helped, they continued to encounter more tragic situations every day.
"You poor thing." Annabelle wrapped her arms around the girl, knowing that one hug wouldn't make up for anything. But her heart ached for this child, and she couldn't help but give what little she had to comfort the girl.
The back door banged open, and Nugget jerked away. Annabelle looked up to see their housekeeper returning from her errands.
"We have a visitor," Annabelle said.
Maddie looked the little girl up and down, then gave Annabelle a knowing glance. She liked the invasion of her household even less, but the tenderness in her eyes reminded Annabelle that she wasn't the only one with a soft spot for children.
"How about some tea to go with those cookies?" Annabelle gave Nugget a little pat, then busied herself with fixing the tea. She stole a glance at Nugget, who nibbled at a cookie.
Well, she wasn't starving. The hungry ones wolfed down the whole plate at once, and Annabelle always felt compelled to send them away with sandwiches. But this little girl.
At least her father kept her fed. Maybe she shouldn't have judged him when she'd first encountered them. She knew nothing of their story. Once upon a time, Annabelle would have wanted to hear that story and see what she could to do to help. But it seemed like too many of the stories Annabelle participated in only ended in heartache.
The only thing Annabelle could let herself help with was making sure this family didn't go hungry. Still, there were hungers that went deeper than the need for food. Of those, Annabelle knew. She might not have ever gone to bed wondering where the next meal was coming from, but she always went to bed wanting. Someday, she would have a life outside of a hopeless ministry that only broke her heart more and more each day.
Surely her aunt Celeste would send for her soon. Then Annabelle could move back East, where people's lives weren't filled with empty dreams of riches. Maybe there, she could meet a man who wasn't blinded by tales of the mother lode. The search for silver brought too much heartache to a body, and Annabelle was ready to leave this life behind.
The little girl tugged at Annabelle's skirts, reminding her of the steaming kettle, and that as easy as it was to dream of a new life, there was still so much work to be done here.
Joseph Stone followed the preacher into the church, watching as Annabelle escorted his sister into the house. Though she hadn't seemed very warm toward him, Annabelle had treated his sister with more kindness than the other ladies they'd encountered in town.
Most of the pretty girls he knew wouldn't have taken the time to be nice to a young child, let alone someone as ill-kept as Nugget. Not that he had much experience with pretty girls. The only woman who'd paid him any notice, Margaret Anderson, had thrown him over for Walter Blankenship because, in her words, "Walter didn't have any brats to care for." Probably for the best. If Margaret hadn't been able to stomach the idea of helping him care for the siblings he had back home, how could he have expected her to have anything to do with a child of Nugget's background?
Not that he'd put Miss Annabelle Lassiter in the same category. Sure, they were both pretty, but Annabelle's blue eyes were more like the sky on a cloudless day, unlike Margaret's
He had no business thinking about any girl's eyes, especially not a preacher's daughter's. And especially not when he had a family to provide for and a father to find.
The preacher didn't speak until they were seated at a desk in his office. Joseph respected that. The other miners had told him that Preacher Lassiter was a good man who treated all with respect.
"What can I do for you, son?"
Son. Not in a condescending way, but in a way that sounded like he actually cared. In a way that made him wish his own father was more fatherly. And not a low-down snake who'd put him in this predicament.
Joseph swallowed the lump in his throat. "I need help. My father, William Earl Stone, came here several years ago in search of silver. I need to find him."
His chest burned with the humiliation of what he'd encountered searching for his pa. "When I made inquiries about him, I was directed to Miss Betty's." Hopefully his face wasn't too red at the mention of the place, especially in front of a man of the cloth. But Preacher Lassiter didn't look like the mention of a house of ill repute bothered him.
"When I got there, they gave me Nugget. Said she was my pa's, and to give her to him because her ma was dead."
It still rankled to know his pa had reduced himself to visiting those women. At least his ma wasn't around to witness his pa's betrayal. Joseph swallowed the bile that rose up every time he thought about his poor ma, waiting for news of a man who had to have betrayed her the minute he arrived in town. Oh, he didn't doubt that Nugget was his sister. She had the look of his sister Mary, waiting back at home for a pa not worthy of her regard.
Preacher Lassiter leaned forward on his desk. "What do you want me to do? Find a home for the little girl?"
"No!" The word burst out of his mouth. Much as he hated to admit it, Nugget was kin, and she was an innocent child who didn't deserve the life she had.
Joseph leaned back against the chair. "I don't know what to do. Ma died nearly four months ago. Pa stopped sending money shortly before her death, and I just know Ma died of a broken heart because the bank told her they were going to take the farm."